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Lowlife (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"Luchador enforcers and more in a Pulp Fiction-style original."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Lowlife" got a lot of the hype at the festival this year, enough for people to worry before it screened that it can't possibly live up to what the programmers have been saying about it, expectations being raised all the higher because it seemed to be coming out of nowhere, so there was no moderating talk from other festivals. And yet, somehow, it managed - it's a gritty crime story that can throw a disgraced luchador and a good-hearted guy with a full-faced swastika tattoo into the mix and somehow not just make it work, but capture something that a slew of imitators haven't gotten right since "Pulp Fiction"..

It's got no business doing so - it starts off in a dark, dark place and will find ways to sink lower as the film goes on - but it's also got an eye on which characters deserve better even if they're going to come to a bad end, and that's most of them aside from a genuinely nasty villain. It's the sort of movie that can often be described as ruthless in how it makes the audience love characters just to have them die horribly, but the filmmakers don't really go in for that sort of cruelty. There's tragedy to be found here, and violent absurdity, but it's not a sarcastic, smirking combination of the two. Director Ryan Prows and his collaborators respect that most of their characters are good people who have made the mistake of assuming others were just as decent, only to have genuine monsters screw it up.

Take the opening, when an ICE raid led by Agent Fowler (Jose Rosete) rounds up a whole bunch of undocumented immigrants in a motel whose owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) at the very least looks the other way, with the detainess delivered to Teddy "Bear" Haynes (Mark Burnham), whose burrito shop is cover for something far worse. One of the abducted girls says that luchador hero El Monstruo will save them, but it turns out that El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) not only works for Bear, but is married to Bear's adopted daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) - and while pregnant Kaylee thinks they should make a break for it, the luchador feels honor-bound to stay. Meanwhile, Crystal is hoping Bear can find a kidney for her ailing husband Dan (King Orba), and Bear's accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) is picking his old friend Randy (Jon Oswald) up after that man is released from prison, with Randy's umissable new ink not the only thing that could make this uncomfortable.

The raid is a nasty place to start, but it allows Prows and his four co-writers to make sure that the audience is in a suitably dark, nasty place when it introduces the film's riskiest proposition, at least in terms peculiarity. If they started with El Monstruo, the very incongruity of having a wrestler who never takes off his mask despite being disgraced as both a competitor and a local hero in the center of everything might have made absurdity the center of the picture, especially when combined with the pitch-black comedy of his tremendously violent blackouts. Instead, it gives the filmmakers a surprising amount of wiggle-room in terms of tone: This movie is gritty and dead-serious in its stakes, but also heightened. It puts the audience out on the fringes with these characters but delivers laughs so powerful that the impulse to pity them is blunted. The film may be loaded with potentially tragic figures, but that's not all they are by a long shot.

Not all of them represent the most complex or tragic characters one has ever seen in an ensemble crime film, but they are well-formed enough that there isn't a weak link among the cast. It's easy for some of the ore outlandish characters to get the most attention, and it's well-deserved; Ricardo Adam Zarate may never show his face, but his body language and tone of voice easily reveal El Monstruo's shame, and no matter what potentially-melodramatic thing he's given to say about his family history and legacy, Zarate plays it not just straight but sincere. It's a stone-faced seriousness that doesn't cross paths with Jon Oswald's Randy until relatively late, but while Oswald's also got a visual distraction that makes him stand out from the rest of the crowd, the fact of it plays into a fine "dumb small time criminal" performance that's never grating and winds up having room for Randy to be both big-hearted and a little more capable in a pinch than he might first appear. There's not a whole lot of nuance to Mark Burnham's Teddy, a gloriously unrepentant strip-mall human trafficker who comes off as bored and annoyed in the moments when he has to pretend he's doing something decent, with Burnham finding just the right combination of not giving a damn and fury at his whims not being catered to.

Those colorful characters work in large part because others in the film are fairly grounded without being flat. There's a pragmatic, genuine fear to Santana Dempsey's Kaylee, her pregnancy seeming to make her both panicked and bold, while co-writer Shaye Ogbonna is sneakily crucial as Keith: Though often deployed as a flustered, Charles Grodin-esque straight man to Oswald's Randy, he spends a fair amount of their initial sequence together as the one being the tricky half of the conversation, but he's also the one responsible for making sure Teddy's villainous bona fides stay in mind with twitchiness and nerves whenever there's reason for him to remember his boss is a psycho and there are a lot of people who can balance the books out there. Still, it's clear early on that Nicki Micheaux's Crystal is the heart of the movie despite having the fewest obvious tics. Micheaux captures both the forced optimism of this woman and the despair that she's trying to hold off with it, making that sort of defense mechanism seem oddly reasonable rather than deluding when viewed from the outside, convincing the audience that things might just be too much for her to handle as the film goes on and her tragedies mount.

Prows and his group do a good job of not overloading the audience - though the film doesn't really have a huge cast, he's good at splitting them into smaller groups or pairs, focusing on that dynamic until it's time to crash it into another. The filmmakers are good at getting just enough exposition out of the characters so that one knows exactly where they are coming from without ever slowing things down, and they keep things moving in other ways: The film broken into chapters that don't necessarily occur in strict chronological order is an old trick by now, but it works here because it never feels entirely like a means of keeping the viewer off-balance. Prows may take his time getting back to a cliffhanger, but he never uses the rewind button as a strict tease, and knows to lay off it when the audience needs the satisfaction of things coming together.

On top of that, it's a great-looking, confidently made film. Production designer Callie Andreadis and her team make sure that the border between the parts that feel authentic and run-down and those that are (hopefully) exaggerated and pulpy are never jarring or like a switch being flipped, with cinematographer Benjamin Kitchens helping Prows capture that world with great, perfectly-composed style. It's often a bloody, chaotic world, and the filmmakers do not shy away from the gore even in the scenes that might seem like they are cut to keep the violence off-screen, and a careful eye on when to make violence horrific and when to make it triumphant direct action doesn't mean holding back from thrilling scenes.

Conceptually, it's kind of a hard sell - I know that a number of people will bail on the idea after hearing "luchador" and "swastika tattoo" - but it works in ways that its more conventional cousins seldom do. It's grimy and ruthless and funny and hopeful all at once, a crime story that can get weird without losing what makes it connect to the audience.

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originally posted: 09/15/17 03:51:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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